Planet Labs Isn’t An Average Aerospace Start-Up

They don’t quite look like doves, although that’s what aerospace start-up Planet Labs has named their constellation of small satellites. For over a decade, the space industry has used the term “CubeSat” to refer to this type of square, solar-powered, toaster-sized satellite that orbits within 300-600 kilometers of Earth. But Will Marshall, the scientist who left NASA to found Planet Labs in 2010, named his specific brand of CubeSats “Doves,” because he planned on launching a whole flock.

With over 100, Planet Labs’ flock of satellites is the largest in human history.

Fourteen new Doves reached space on August 19th, 2015, bringing the total to 101. These 14 will be deployed from the International Space Station into geocentric orbit early this autumn.

Geospatial Imaging Made Marketable—And Humanitarian

What do the Doves do? They take high-quality images of earth, at three to five meters resolution; once all 101 Doves are deployed, they will photograph every spot on Earth every day (as opposed to Google Earth, which does this about every other year). While Planet Labs’ data will be open-access, they are already marketing the technology to eager industries like agriculture, shipping, and mining.

Doves are also bringers of peace. Not only will these small satellites provide accurate data for studiers of climate change—with real-time displays of deforestation and melting ice caps—they will also assist in disaster relief by predicting, witnessing, and warning people about natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes, and tsunamis.

In fact, Planet Labs has already saved many lives. When a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal in April 2015, aid workers scrambled to find and provide relief to every affected community. Planet Labs poured over its data and found two isolated, damaged villages that aid workers didn’t know existed. The start-up informed the workers, who then brought those villages life-saving supplies.

Start-Ups In Space? Welcome to 2015

So is Planet Labs an aerospace giant, or a small tech startup? It is difficult to say, but it may be the first company to so effectively blur the line between the two.

Many private-sector aeronautical companies—Orbital ATK, SpaceX, Boeing—developed their operations via major contracts from NASA, the Department of Defense, other major government agencies, or vast corporations. Planet Labs is unique for lifting off without any of these billion-dollar budgets.

Only now is it possible to conceive of a space startup functioning this way. Just as Twitter or Instagram would have been enormously, inconceivably expensive before the explosion of smartphones and wireless data, a company like Planet Labs could never have existed without hitching cheap rides on the record numbers of public- and private-sector rockets being launched. Now that a start-up venture like Planet Labs has become possible, the company is maximizing those possibilities.

Small Satellites, Proceed With Caution…Or Not

Still, space is a risky business: two of Planet Labs’ ten launches have exploded, costing the company millions. It lost 26 Doves when an Orbital rocket exploded in October 2014 and another eight when a SpaceX rocket exploded in June 2015. Even with the leaps and bounds in space development and satellite technology, the viability of frequent, reliable launches may be Planet Labs’ biggest obstacle, both in terms of developing its program and flattering future investors.

On the other hand, for having a giant rocket and two-dozen satellites burst into hellish flames upon launch, the degree of cool kept by Planet Labs and its investors was perhaps historically unprecedented. The fact that Planet Labs’ explosions have not been seen as complete catastrophes and that the start-up has continued winning investments—$183 million as of May 2015, and queuing up to join the “Unicorn Club” of tech startups valued over $1 billion—reflects the newfound promise and expectation of the small satellite industry.

Investors have sunk $2.5 billion into small satellites over the past decade, nearly half of which has been within the past 12 months. And big players like SpaceX have not been the only winners; startups abound, as the space industry now boasts over 800 companies.

Driving much of this boom is the promise of space-based Internet service, which some see as the second coming of the Internet boom. But geospatial imaging, Planet Labs’ specialty, is widely regarded as the other big player in satellite-based services, garnering investment from a wide array of companies and industries. And all this new excitement, both about space Internet and about geospatial imaging, is driven by the feasibility and affordability of small satellites. So even if Planet Labs is not your next internet provider, their position at the cutting edge of small satellite technology spells for them a future as industry leaders.

Geospatial Imaging: A Powerful and Profitable Tool

Though its revenues are growing, Planet Labs has not yet disclosed whether it is making a profit. But if, as planned, their whole system is up and running by 2016, with 101 satellites taking high-resolution images of every inch of the world every day, then Planet Labs will be the first company to offer such an accurate tool. In a short time, they may find themselves controlling one of the most powerful and desirable products on the market.

The agriculture industry would use Planet Labs to track the growth, cultivation, or depletion of crops and pasture on a day-to-day business. The mining industry would use it to track its progress and keep tabs on many different projects. The shipping industry would use it to watch fleets of ships or trucks move around the world. And all these and many other industries would use Planet Labs to more accurately predict the weather.

Planet Labs could bundle industry- or company-specific sets of data and analytics to be sold or subscribed to. However, if its data will all be open-access anyway, Planet Labs will have to make sure that it can offer to companies a product worth paying extra for—or it must restrain the publicity of its product. Otherwise, any company could just log on and find the information it needs.

This will become especially pressing as other geospatial imaging companies stiffen their competition. Google’s Skybox Imaging, a commercial upgrade of Google Earth, aims to offer businesses a similar product to Planet Labs’. BlackSky Global and Spire will also both offer geospatial imaging. But none of these has nearly as many satellites launched as Planet Labs, who remains well-positioned to become the first comprehensive, high quality geospatial imaging service in the world.

But clearly, it will not be the last. When the Doves start dodging CubeSats from an array of competing service providers, what will become most important is Planet Labs’ strategy on the ground, not in the sky.

How would you or your company use geospatial imaging? Share your thoughts!

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